I have to start with a confession: I’ve always been very lazy about making the effort to listen to Beethoven symphonies. When tonight’s Northern Sinfonia concert with Heinrich Schiff was announced, the attraction for me was always the Shostakovich cello concerto that was originally programmed. However, due to a shoulder problem, Heinrich Schiff was unable to perform the physically demanding Shostakovich work, and substituted three Vivaldi cello concerti instead, which I was also really looking forward to, for entirely different reasons. Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony in the second half didn’t really cross my mind much.

© Klaus Rudolph
© Klaus Rudolph

With Heinrich Schiff directing from the cello, Northern Sinfonia gave us beautifully elegant performances of the three Vivaldi concerti. Heinrich Schiff didn’t so much conduct, as guide and encourage the orchestra, occasionally giving a beat, sometimes just nodding his head, and always conveying everything he wanted through his smiling face as he and his cello engaged the orchestra in a friendly dialogue. The cello is typically associated with either soaring melodies, or heavy passion, but Schiff’s playing was incredibly delicate, dancing through the long and intricate solo passages with a lightness of tone that surprised me, and the ornamentation, particularly in the slow movement of the B minor concerto spilled out like drops of water from under his fingers.

Vivaldi is one of those composers whose work is so filled with trademarks that he’s easy to identify: the Four Seasons never seem far away. The G major concerto however was broader and grander than Vivaldi’s usual output, lacking the frenzied broken chords that usually fill his fast movements, and it reminded me more of Handel. The largo movement was dark and beautiful, and played very movingly.

The inclusion of the double concerto in G minor, gave us the opportunity to enjoy the pairing of Heinrich Schiff with Northern Sinfonia’s young principal cellist Louisa Tuck. At times during the imitative passages of the first movement it felt as if we were watching a masterclass; Louisa Tuck would play a brilliant solo line, with a look of intense concentration, and then Heinrich Schiff repeated it even better, as if to say, very good, but look this is how it should be done. Last time I mentioned Louisa Tuck in a review, she was playing Schoenberg and she showed herself to be just as talented at the other end of the musical spectrum; she is definitely a performer to watch out for.

And so to the Beethoven, and from the crashing chord and hesitant strings that open the work before the first big theme blossomed out, Northern Sinfonia had converted me. The Eroica was written in 1803, and initially dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte, at a time when it seemed to many as if Bonaparte embodied the great Enlightenment ideals of freedom, democracy and equality. After Bonaparte proclaimed himself Emperor, Beethoven angrily crossed out the dedication but the music and its spirit remain.

Northern Sinfonia’s performance this evening was nothing short of heroic. All the exuberance and optimism of the first and final movements came shining through; at one point during the last movement, I glanced round the audience and saw broad smiles and rhythmic nodding heads. By contrast, the brooding march of the second movement felt like a sinister warning of troubles to come, as if Beethoven had foreseen the disaster of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. The movement ends with the march becoming almost imperceptibly tiny and distant, before one last gasp, then it dies away. The Scherzo movement began with another build-up of tension, before bursting again, and my only small quibble of the evening was that the horns sounded just a little mushy. Juliette Bausor’s flute solos in the first and last movements glittered through the strings, and Louisa Tuck had yet more hard work to do, with several tricky solo passages.

Heinrich Schiff was Musical Director of Northern Sinfonia in the early 90s and it was clear that he is much appreciated by the players and brings out the best in them. His conducting is so expressive that at times I felt that it would be possible to hear the music just by watching him. All this came out to the fullest in what was, for me, a revelatory performance of the Beethoven, and has left me with a new appreciation of the composer’s genius. I must get the CDs out.